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Eastern Turkey - Travel and visas
A new system of e-visas (electronic visas) was introduced in April 2013, and all nationalities who require a visa can now apply online at www.evisa.gov.tr. In order to apply you need your passport details, flight details and a MasterCard or Visa credit card for advance payment. Once your visa has been approved, you must print it off in order to show it to passport control on arrival in Turkey. Applying online avoids the sometimes-lengthy queues to buy a visa on arrival, but it costs more for non-American travellers at a flat US$20 irrespective of nationality. Your credit card will take an equivalent amount and convert it for you. The visa is still multiple entry and valid for three months.
Ordinary British passport holders can still buy a visa costing £10 on arrival at a Turkish airport, and this visa is multiple-entry and is valid for three months. Nationals of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway (one month only), Portugal, Spain and the USA have the same arrangement, though the amount varies from country to country (Americans pay US$20 for example) and it must be paid for in hard currency notes, not coins (US dollars, euros or pounds sterling). You have to queue first to buy your visa stamp at the separate kiosk before queuing again at passport control. This has to be done at the first point of landing in Turkey, so even if you are transiting directly to an airport in eastern Turkey, you will still need to queue for your visa first before transiting to the domestic terminal for your onward flight, unless you already have your e-visa. Nationals of Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland do not require a visa at all. Tourist visas do not give the right to take up employment, whether paid or unpaid, to reside or to study (excluding student exchange programmes), or to establish a business in Turkey.
Flights to İstanbul from London take around four hours and arrive either at Atatürk International Airport which is on the European side of the city, with onward domestic flights leaving from the Domestic Terminal, a short walk away, or at the newer but smaller Sabiha Gökçen International Airport on the Asian side. Whilst Sabiha Gökçen is further from the historic centre of İstanbul and therefore less convenient if you are having a stopover, flights to it are often cheaper and if you are planning an onward flight the same day it can end up more convenient for transiting. Its small size makes it very user-friendly and there are fewer queues.
Eastern Turkey has domestic airports at Adana, Adıyaman, Ağri, Batman, Diyarbakır, Elâzığ, Erzincan, Erzurum, Gaziantep, Hatay (Antakya), Kahramanmaraş, Kars, Malatya, Mardin, Muş, Samsun, Şanlıurfa, Trabzon and Van. All these have flights linking to İstanbul and Ankara, and sometimes in season from Izmir or even Antalya, making two-centre holidays within Turkey entirely feasible. İstanbul’s Atatürk International Airport is 30–40 minutes’ drive away from Sultanahmet, İstanbul’s tourist centre and where the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya and the Topkapı Palace can be found.
The most popular scheduled service carriers to Turkey from the UK are the national carrier Turkish Airlines, British Airways, Pegasus Airlines and easyJet. These fly from London’s airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted) but Turkish Airlines also operate a direct flight from Birmingham, and Jet2 flies to İstanbul from East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle airports. Germanwings is a low-cost airline based in Cologne that operates from several German airports to İstanbul (Sabiha Gökçen) and Ankara. The Spanish airline Spanair flies from several Spanish airports to İstanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen airport.
The only ferry services to eastern Turkey are the regular services to and from Girne (Kyrenia) in Northern Cyprus and Taşucu near Silifke, from Girne (Kyrenia) to Alanya (summer only), and between Mersin and Gazimağusa (Famagusta). You can arrive in western Turkey by car ferry from Piraeus in Greece at Ayvalık, Çeşme, Bodrum or Marmaris. Direct car ferries from Italy to Turkey no longer run, though you can link from Brindisi or Bari in Italy to Patras in Greece, then drive on to Piraeus.
There are direct sleepers running once a day from Serbia (Belgrade, taking 22 hours), Greece (Thessaloniki, taking 11 hours), Bulgaria (Sofia, taking 15 hours) and Romania (Bucharest, taking 19 hours) into İstanbul run by the Turkish State Railway. Fares range from TRY75 to TRY300 depending on whether you just have a seat or a first-class couchette. Once a year in August the ultra-luxurious Venice–Simplon Orient Express runs a six-day trip to İstanbul. This service sells out very quickly so early booking is recommended. All trains coming from the west arrive at İstanbul’s historic Sirkeci station on the Golden Horn, just a short distance from Sultanahmet, where İstanbul’s main sights are concentrated. Haydarpaşa station on the Asian side is currently closed due to work on the high-speed rail link between İstanbul and Ankara, which is scheduled to continue until 2014. The Trans-Asya Ekspresi to Tehran in Iran will start at Haydarpaşa once engineering works are complete, but currently starts at Ankara, running weekly on Wednesdays via Kayseri and Van, and taking 66 hours. Consult www.rajatrains.com (the Iranian railways site) or www.seat61.com for details of these services, which also involve a five-hour crossing of Lake Van.
Regular coach services run to Turkey from Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Holland to the west, as well as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iran and Syria to the east (see www.eurolines.com). The most comfortable and direct services run from Italy, Germany, Austria and Greece, with a direct route between Vienna and İstanbul taking 27 hours, and a direct route from Athens to İstanbul taking 20 hours. These routes are operated by Ulusoy and Varan Turizm using large Mercedes coaches which are hard to beat. All buses (both international and domestic intercity) arrive into the colossal Esenler Coach Station (just known as the otogar) in the northwest of İstanbul, about 10km from Sultanahmet. The cheapest way into Sultanahmet is to catch the LRT (Light Rail Transit) service from its otogar stop to Aksaray, then catch the metro from the Aksaray stop to the Sultanahmet stop. The whole journey takes 30 minutes and costs TRY5. By taxi it costs about TRY35 and takes around 20 minutes.
You can drive your own car to Turkey via Bulgaria or Greece. Your vehicle is allowed to stay in the country for up to six months after entry. At the border you will need to provide a valid passport, national driving licence, vehicle licence, international green card (insurance card) and vehicle registration document. Make sure your vehicle insurance is valid for the Asian side of the country. If you want to keep your car in the country for longer than six months you will have to pay import tax. For further information consult the Turkish Touring and Automobile Club. The drive from the UK to Turkey is about 3,000km and the two common routes are a) the northern route via Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria and b) the southern route via Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy, with a ferry to Patras or Igoumenitsa in Greece, then onward to Turkey via Piraeus.
Tickets are best bought online using a price comparison website or direct through one of the airlines. The usual system applies whereby the cheapest tickets are available a couple of months in advance, so the earlier you book the better. Tickets can also be bought on the spot in the Domestic Terminal, although this is risky as the flights are often full.
The national carrier Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yolları; www.thy.com) flies at very reasonable prices between all the main cities of eastern Turkey, namely Adana, Adıyaman, Ağri, Batman, Diyarbakır, Elâzığ, Erzincan, Erzurum, Gaziantep (Antep), Hatay (Antakya), Kahramanmaraş (Maraş), Kars, Malatya, Mardin, Muş, Samsun, Şanlıurfa (Urfa), Trabzon and Van. All these cities have flights at least once or twice a day linking them to İstanbul and Ankara. The flights range in time between one and two hours, bringing even the remotest corners of eastern Turkey within easy reach. In the summer high season there are also an increasing number of connecting flights to the eastern airports to and from Izmir and Antalya, making two-centre holidays within Turkey a realistic option.
The rail network in Turkey was constructed in the late Ottoman period, mainly by the Germans, and often follows a mysterious routing system, said to be because they were paid according to the distance. Newer, more direct lines are currently being laid.
All onward travel from İstanbul used to be from the historic Haydarpaşa station, Kadıköy, a gift from the German Kaiser to the Ottoman Sultan in 1908. This station has been closed since 2012, however, while the new high-speed line to Ankara is being constructed and it may never be reopened. A new station, 25km east of İstanbul called Pendik, is planned for 2014 or 2015 and eventually, a year or two later, this will link to a new station in central İstanbul via the new Bosphorus rail tunnel. The high-speed İstanbul to Ankara express train will take just six hours.
Until all the work is completed, you can take a ferry from İstanbul (Kabataş terminal) to Bursa, and then link up with the high-speed Bursa–Ankara train, or alternatively take a bus from İstanbul to Eskişehir, where there is a high-speed train line to Ankara.
By coach and bus
This is by far the most popular and convenient way to travel by public transport inside Turkey. Every town and city has its own bus station (otogar) with many routes linking every corner of the country, many frequent services and many companies to choose from, each varying slightly in frequency and comfort. The competition between them means that the system is efficient and cheap. Some of the biggest names are Kamil Koç, Metro, Ulusoy and Varan. Varan and Metro have an online reservations service so you can even book tickets from the UK, something that is otherwise extremely difficult to do unless you speak Turkish. Tickets can usually be bought on the day at the bus station, where each bus company has its own office, though at weekends or on public holidays it is advisable to book in advance. Specific numbered seats are allocated, so to ensure the best position on the bus you can buy your ticket a day or two in advance. The middle seats are generally considered to be the best, as the ride can be bumpy towards the front or rear. Bus companies also have central offices in cities and large towns where tickets can be bought.
By taxi and dolmuş
Taxis are always yellow. Although meters are usually fitted in eastern Turkey, they sometimes do not work, so it is wise to agree on the fare first. If you are travelling outside the city boundaries it is usual to agree a fixed rate in advance. The dolmuş is a shared taxi, usually a minibus, sometimes a large car, which follows specific routes within larger towns and cities, picking people up and setting them down anywhere along the route. It is recognisable by its yellow band. The word dolmuş means literally ‘stuffed’, from the fact that they do not follow a set timetable but simply set off when they are full. The fares are fixed by the relevant municipality, and each passenger pays according to the distance travelled and can get out at any of the specified stops. Much cheaper than a private taxi, it is often good to take a dolmuş from the airport to the bus station or to the centre of town. As well as linking the city centres with the suburbs, there are also some intercity dolmuş services, but these are more expensive than the bus and often less comfortable.
Eastern Turkey is a good place for cyclists (Bettina Selby did it alone in 1992 and wrote her book Beyond Ararat, Mountain House Publishing 1993), as roads are often empty and little used. In Cappadocia there are already plenty of places hiring out bicycles, a perfect way to explore the lesser-known valleys. It is possible to take your own bicycle on Turkish trains and buses as long as you have notified the train or bus company in advance. On buses they will put it in the baggage compartment underneath with all the other luggage (so beware of possible damage), and on trains they will put it in a baggage compartment, assuming the train has one. Often it is the slower trains that have them, not the faster trains with Pullman seats and couchettes, so check in advance direct with the station concerned if you speak Turkish or else via an agency like Tur-ISTA. On ferries you can just wheel it on and off yourself. A good map for cyclists is available in İstanbul bookshops, it is called Köy Köy Türkiye Yol Atlası.
Travel by car is by far the best way of exploring Turkey. Without one you will be able to see less, or you will need more time (adapting your plans to bus schedules, etc) to see everything. The roads in central Anatolia and eastern Turkey are usually very empty. Many places in eastern Turkey lie off the main roads, making them difficult to reach with public transport. Having your own car is therefore a huge help and saving in time, and sometimes even in cost if you are travelling in a group of four, say. Another saving if travelling by car is that you can stock up with suitable picnic food and drink and keep it in the boot, so that you are not dependent on finding somewhere to eat during the day. You can also keep to your own timetable. The number of private cars on the road is still quite small in relation to the number of buses and trucks, due to the high price of cars in the country. The area where you do get heavy traffic is on the main transit highway from Ankara south through Aksaray and Pozantı to Tarsus, along the coast to Adana, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Nusaybin, where the transit route enters the eastern corner of Syria or border crossings to Mosul in Iraq.